'Taste like home': Food program offers free, culturally specific meals for people in need

Chef Miguel Lopez says he got involved in program because he now is in a position to help others

Spanish translation: 'Con sabor a hogar': El programa de alimentos que ofrece comidas tradicionales y gratuitas a personas necesitadas

Every week, Miguel Lopez and the six-member staff at Homi Restaurante Mexicano prepare 400 meals.

While it might not seem unusual for a restaurant to prepare that many dishes, these meals are for the Minnesota Central Kitchen, which provides ready-to-eat meals for those in need.

As an immigrant, Lopez knows the struggle of getting by in a new country. As a teen, his father would work long hours. Lopez stayed with friends. And there were times when they turned to a local organization for free meals.

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A couple of months ago he was approached about providing meals for the Minnesota Central Kitchen. After finding out about the program, the answer was easy.

A person poses for a photo at a restaurant.
Miguel Angel Lopez Rodriguez looks on during an interview in Homi restaurant on April 7 in St. Paul. For the past two years, Second Harvest has been operating the Minnesota Central Kitchen which was created during the early days of the pandemic to rescue abandoned food, re-employ furloughed culinary workers and get urgently needed meals to folks facing hunger.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

“I know that part of life where you’re in need. Once I found out it was going to be for the community and for people in need. Myself, as an immigrant to the U.S., I know the importance of having food on the table. I’m in a position right now that I can provide that to the community. So, that’s why I said yes without any hesitation,” Lopez said.

Minnesota Central Kitchen fulfills a need born of the pandemic, said Robin Manthie, the kitchen’s managing director. It’s a program of Second Harvest Heartland. Currently, the kitchen works with more than 100 partners — including restaurants, community distribution partners and culinary workers.

People speak inside of a restaurant.
Robin Manthie of Managing Director Minnesota Central Kitchen.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Unlike traditional food banks where individuals can pick up groceries, Minnesota Central Kitchen provides prepared meals. They also work to provide meals that reflect the community, Manthie said.

“We know prepared meals are very personal. And we want that meal to taste like home. So, we have food that’s made in the community for the community,” she said.

In addition to different ethnic meals, they also provide vegetarian and Halal dishes. Those receiving the meals can choose what they want and are not tied to one specific option, she said.

Homi is owned by Lopez, his father, also named Miguel, and Hortencia Reyes, the elder Lopez’s wife. They opened the restaurant 13 years ago.

A person poses for a photo at a restaurant.
Miguel Angel Lopez Rodriguez prepares a meal in Homi's kitchen.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

The kitchen is small with limited space, Reyes said. And they weren’t sure they could store the amount of food they needed to prepare.

“We wanted to help, but we weren’t sure how. We mentioned this to Central Kitchen and they supported us with a refrigerator,” Reyes said.

Lopez and his staff prepare the meals on Sunday and Monday. Those meals are then picked up every Tuesday and then are distributed at various sites.

Initially, they prepared individual meals, but Lopez said the kitchen asked them to prepare larger meals that could feed a family of four.

Lopez said he tries to keep a Mexican flavor to the meals.

“When I work with the food bank, there are limited items that I have to work with. So, I try to see what they have to offer and then just turn it into something that I’ll be happy to serve to my family,” Lopez said.

The Minnesota Central Kitchen is now a long-term part of the food bank, Manthie said. And it’s looking to add more restaurant partners. In addition to serving the Twin Cities area, they’ve recently expanded to Rochester.

“Last year we distributed about a million meals. This year, we’ll do close to 1.4 million meals. So, we’re growing,” Manthie said.

A person poses for a photo at a restaurant.
"I’m in a position right now that I can provide that to the community. So, that’s why I said yes without any hesitation,” Miguel Angel Lopez Rodriguez said.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Becoming part of the program is a big decision, Lopez said. But he said the support from the kitchen has made being part of the program easier.

“So, if anybody is out there and they’re not 100 percent into it. I think the reward of knowing that you serve your community, knowing that you’re helping someone, I will say do it,” Lopez said.

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.